by Del Chinchen
Africa has always had a built-in system that provides for the health and well-being of her people.
It was just after the tragedy of 9/11 that I began to get an increase in visitors in my office at the university in Nairobi. People who had never visited me before would come in, talk, maybe have tea together and then go. In every conversation the topic of 9/11 came up. “Did I have friends or relatives who were affected? Are my children who are in America OK? Was I OK?” Then it dawned on me that my Kenyan friends were checking up on me, extending their support for and solidarity with me during this time of crisis in my country—just being there for me, as agents of healing, if necessary.
I am beginning to appreciate more and more, the longer I live in Africa, the network of friends I have that form a protective safety net in case of any problem I might have in life. Often, as in the case above, I am not even aware that I am a recipient of this silent therapy or benefiting from it. But the more I participate in the community network and allow myself to become immersed in their culture of caring, the healthier and happier I, and the network of my friends, become.
Africa has always had a built-in system that provides for the health and well-being of her people. Africans develop a psychoanalytical ability from a very young age. These counseling skills are honed through practiced relational encounters day after day. In the West, counseling knowledge and skills are learned through formal education. In Africa one is trained to be a counselor through the socialization process because everyone can be an instrument of healing. Counseling is not done only by professionals. Everyone is a beneficiary of the caring nature of the African because everyone is an agent of healing. They need and utilize each other to cope with the harsh realities of life.
Therapies of thoughtfulness occur on a daily basis in various forms of actions, not just words. Nigerian pastor Anwuri observes: “We don’t counsel through our words. We counsel through our actions.” These traditional therapies are derived from five basic counseling skills: inclusion, empathy, presence, touch and listening.
In Africa, one does not eat, drink, sleep, walk, pray, sing, work or study alone. In fact, it is impolite, even rude, to eat or drink in the presence of one who is not. To eat or drink alone, in the presence of others, is selfish and uncaring for there seems to be no concern as to whether the others might be hungry or thirsty. My colleagues at the university would never think of leaving someone at the table to eat alone. To greet one but not the others in a group is also wounding. Recognizing and greeting everyone in a group creates a bond that pulls in the newcomer and unites the group. There seems to be a continual desire to draw people in from the outer fringes of the circle. Everyone is included and involved in any event, big or small. No one is left out.
All these subtle messages of affirmation contribute to one another’s health and well-being because they feel included. To know and be known intimately by many others provides a feeling of security and assurance. There is a safety net there when needed.
As a consequence of their emphasis on inclusion, Africans are very open and willing to share their problems with others. This may be the reason for so few cases of depression in Africa (although there seems to be an increase in the modern setting where traditional values and methods of counseling have been lost). Though many live in poverty and on the edge of survival, depression is rare because they are willing to share their problems with others. Opportunities to do this are provided everywhere, at any time with almost anyone. A professional Kenyan UN administrator noted that there is a need for more local methods of counseling because refugees don’t feel comfortable sitting in an office, in a formal setting, with professional psychologists. In the US we will usually say to someone who has a problem: “Let’s find a time to meet where we can talk more about this.” But in Africa counseling happens spontaneously, then and there, whether on the bus, in the office, on the phone or on the street.
In modern contexts in Africa, the greatest need is to have a family support group or a network because of the loss of the extended family. Mission organizations, businesses and churches in Africa can become the caring community to fill the void created by the loss of the traditional setting. The pain of the individual is the pain of the whole community. Therefore, the healing or the counseling of the individual is also theirs. Everyone is a stakeholder in the well-being of the community.
The church can be a community of saints where every believer can serve as an agent of healing. Christians are careful to assure that the bereaved, for example, are taken into a loving community (the church) which can help them in their grief and provide them with hope. They not only understand the crisis of the individual, but take part in it and make it their crisis (“Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn”—Romans 12:12).
To identify with the feelings of others it is necessary to be able to read the emotions expressed on people’s faces. A game Kenyans like to play, that reinforces this skill, is to identify public personalities. To prepare the game, only the eyes, nose and mouth of famous people are cut out of a magazine or newspaper. They are glued to 3 x 5 cards and passed around. The first one to identify the famous person wins. This game equips them with the ability to observe facial expressions, gestures and body movements.
Developed over years of practice, they become experts in studying the details of faces, intuiting mood, health and the emotional state.
Since I was a regular customer at the local butchery, my Kenyan friend behind the counter greeted me warmly but then drew a concerned expression on his face when he saw mine: “You don’t look happy today.” If someone is sad, others are supposed to notice and be sensitive to it. Africans can intuit mood so well that they will adjust their mood to fit another’s. As one wears a coat and tie, Africans intentionally wear facial expressions to communicate their feelings. Others are expected to interpret what those feelings are and inquire about them.
Facial expressions and body language are to be translated, like a language, and then followed with concern. Silence may communicate a lack of interest in the person. In the West we will usually leave people alone who look like they are not doing well for fear of interfering with their personal life. But Africans wear that face both to reveal a problem and to silently plea for help.
Missionaries need to learn how to read faces and body language if they are to be effective counselors. The problem is that many people from the West are prone to trust their culturally bound interpretations of non-verbal language—gestures, facial expressions, voice intonations, silence, eye movement—and the intuitive interpretation of emotions (Augsburger 1986, 18). Language training for missionaries is not enough. Non-verbal language training needs to be a part of every missionary orientation program.
If at all possible one is never left alone, especially visitors. Consequently, one is never lonely because one is never alone. If one is sick or bereaved someone else is always present. In West Africa, during the entire month my wife was sick in bed with hepatitis, not a day went by that she didn’t have a visitor in the room with her. Sometimes there were long periods of silence during the visitor’s stay, but not necessarily due to lack of words. It is one’s presence that is important—the need to fill the void of people—not so much the need to fill the void of silence with words.
One does not just send a get-well card in the mail. A visit to the hospital or the home is much more supportive, along with a card and a basket filled with produce. It is the presence of others that perks up the sick and brings them comfort, stimulating them towards recovery. African pastoral counselor Masamba Ma Mpolo explains: “The sharing of one’s life with another’s leads to wholeness and guarantees health” (1985, 314). People’s presence, their voices and laughter, cause everyone to feel better, even the visitors. The laughter can be quite therapeutic, inducing a sense of well-being and allowing everyone to forget their troubles for a while.
At a sewing center for refugee women in Nairobi, the constant humming of sewing machines was no longer heard when one of their own returned from the hospital. Everyone stopped work to welcome Magdalene back to the workplace. After warm greetings and many hugs the women gathered around her and thanked God in prayer for her speedy recovery. Magdalene attributed her rapid healing process to the many visits to the hospital by the women. She promised them a full and quick recovery now that she was back among them. Part of the healing process is a result of the social bonding experienced within a caring and loving community.
Even the casual observer will notice the many ways Africans express care for each other publicly through physical contact: the baby on the mother’s back; the warm, lingering handshakes; men walking together hand-in-hand; women embracing each other in happiness or grief; and so on. People don’t insist on their personal space. Rather, they enjoy sitting close to each other, sometimes arms draped over one another as a way of distributing their love and warmth.
Greetings are a way of reconnecting souls after a separation. Accompanying the greeting is a kiss or warm handshake, not to be confused with the unfeeling handshakes one often experiences elsewhere. In parts of West Africa, the handshake is accompanied with a “brotherly” grasping of the thumbs, concluded with a snapping of the fingers. The louder the snap the tighter the friendship. In East Africa the greeting between close friends may begin with a loud slap of the hands followed by a very firm, knuckle-cracking handshake, as if the hand is being wrung out to dry. In the Rift Valley of Kenya the fingers dig deep into the palm of the hand as if one wants to take a piece of the other. The Burundian women sing their greetings to each other as they rub one another’s backs. The Ethiopians and other coastal cultures kiss three times from cheek to cheek.
The Apostle Paul saw importance to this type of greeting as expressions of love and Christian brotherhood, closing his letters to the Romans, Corinthians and Thessalonians with “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Peter concluded his letter with “Greet one another with a kiss of love.” These requests for believers to greet each other intimately were always in the context of peace, grace and spiritual well-being.
The number of handshakes, in Africa throughout the day, are incredible. Fifty a day are not unusual for me at the university—those on the bus, my colleagues, the staff (secretaries, cleaners, librarians, cashiers), visitors and others. If there are not many students in the classes I teach, I greet all of them. In a committee meeting it is customary to greet everyone in the room. This amounts to a myriad of little hugs each day. We underestimate the value of greetings. For the African, they have tremendous therapeutic value and they can for us, as well, if we let them. These little warm gestures of care throughout the day enable people to release their tensions and harbored feelings by sharing them with others. Feelings are not pent up inside when one has friends willing to absorb them. These little affirmations, through touch and verbal assent, give one the assurance that there are those nearby who care and are there if needed.
Greetings are a time of sharing the news with each other. The greetings of the Gaba of northern Kenya are verbal exchanges, punctuated with ritual adage, that can last for hours. “How is the family? The crops? The cows?” In Liberia and other parts of West Africa, the greeting is about one’s health: “How is the body?” This is not a passing “Hi” with a wave of a hand or a “How are you?” without really expecting an answer other than the standard “Fine.” It is a greeting which actually acknowledges another’s presence. It is a sincere, detailed inquiry into one’s well-being and current situation.
After a cease fire was in place during the civil war in Liberia, my wife and I left our refuge of Ivory Coast and returned to Liberia. An unexpected counseling ministry unfolded almost immediately upon our return. Victims of the tribal conflict flocked to our home anxious to tell their war stories. It was therapeutic for them to talk about their fears, work through their anger and bitterness, and express their gratefulness for having survived the atrocities. The more people present to hear the retelling of their experiences the better. Combined groans of empathy, nods of support and expressions of understanding allowed the victim’s burdens and griefs to be shared by everyone present. As members of the Christian community, each of us took a piece of the grief and absorbed it as our own. It was also an opportunity to pray with them, taking their burdens and anxieties to a loving, caring God.
After studying the relationship between traditional African healers and their clients, Uba believes that listening is the core of traditional helping. It is recommended by Berinyuu of Ghana that, “The caregiver listen with empathy to the spoken words and non-spoken signs of the client” (1988, 149).
There is a time to listen and an appropriate time to talk. It is all in the timing. Counsel, if not at the right time and in the right context, could do more harm than good. A word of wisdom is expected, sometimes in the form of a proverb (softening the blow of the advice), but only after careful listening. We tend to want to talk too soon or we ask question after question, sometimes interrupting the story. We have to understand that when counseling in Africa we don’t have to talk that much. Listening is fundamental to effective counseling.
We have to be willing to listen at any time of day or night. If someone comes to the office with the news that their relative is sick, or a friend has died or that there was an accident on the way to work, everything stops. Nothing else is as important as that person’s problem. This allows us to absorb the pain, share the burden and pray with the one who is troubled.
Culture-specific psychotherapy is strongly recommended in Africa. It is not enough to counsel in Africa with the skills of psychology and therapy drawn from a Western, monocultural experience alone. We must glean from the local, traditional therapy methods that fit the cultural context in order for our counseling to be credible. When we use contextual-ized methods we gain the local people’s confidence as an effective counselor as well as communicate that we really care about them.
Missionaries, themselves, can benifit from these therapy methods for their own emotional well-being. Many missionaries have had to leave the field because they were unable to cope with the stress of living in Africa. Counseling centers are now being established in Africa specifically for missionaries although there is a growing concern in the amount of counseling required to keep missionaries on the field. As missionaries open up and share their struggles, they can be ministered to by their African friends and colleagues. Not only will they experience improved health but their relationships with Africans will deepen as they participate in the established counseling practices within Africa.
Augsburger, David. 1986. Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
Berinyuu, A.A. 1988. “The Encounter of Western Civilization and Civilization of Islam on Ghanaian Culture: Implications for the Ministry of Pastoral Care and Counseling” Africa Theological Journal 17 (2): 143-149.
Masamba Ma Mpolo, Jean. 1985. “African Symbols and Stories in Pastoral Care” Journal of Pastoral Care 39 (4): 314-326.
Uba, Anselm. 1991. “Counseling in the Present African Context” African Christian Studies 7 (Dec.): 54-73.
Del Chinchen has been a missionary in Africa for 22 years. He is chairman of the Bible Department at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 1, p. 54-59. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.